Tutor Chris Morris-Lent says excessive difficulty in high school hurts students academically and socially.
At private schools and wealthy public schools, high school in the new, capital-infused Seattle is more academically difficult than ever before. When schools take this difficulty to an extreme, we call them “good schools.” But excessive difficulty makes these schools good for almost no one.
Let’s start with the kids. A 2014 Stanford study found that too much homework caused more stress, affected students’ health and meant they had less time for friends, family and extracurricular activities. I’m an independent tutor — I’ve taught about 200 kids over eight years — and, these days, I see all of my students experience this. One, a Seattle Prep freshman, went from radiant to sullen within two months there. Another, a senior at Edmonds-Woodway High School, reported regularly “falling asleep standing up.”
Onerous workloads hurt students in ways they’re supposed to help. The Prep freshman, bright and engaging during the summer, cared less about understanding, and more about “getting things done” in the face of ceaseless tedium. A junior at Tesla STEM High in Redmond thought the rigor of her calculus class — which was way tougher than the one I took at Garfield High School in 2004 — would help her grade on the final Advanced Placement test. Then she saw her AP grade. She was not happy.
“Academic rigor” would be more justified if it helped in college admissions. Instead, it hurts. At Tesla STEM, eight out of 116 students were National Merit Scholars; when even National Merit semifinalists represent the top 0.5 percent of Washington’s seniors, this is a staggering proportion. I talked to one of my Tesla STEM students:
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“So they must have gotten in where they wanted,” I said.
“Nope,” she said.
“Why?,” I asked.
“Their GPAs weren’t great.”
“What about everyone who wasn’t a National-Merit Scholar?”
“They were even more disappointed.”
Most of this college-admissions obsession comes from parents, of course. In today’s Seattle, adults are making more, working more and parenting less. To make up for their guilt, and ensure their kids can embody their idea of “success,” they obsess over grades and college. The fallout is predictable: quality of life declines for everyone. I’ve seen academic stress tear families apart. Parents’ good intentions turn into something harmful. The Seattle Prep student’s dad badgered him about homework until they spoke of nothing else. The Tesla STEM student’s mom thought of nothing but her daughter’s deliverance to college.
This kind of secondary education was commonplace among my classmates at Columbia University in New York City. They did not remember their high school years fondly.
But I do. At Garfield High School in Seattle, there wasn’t much homework, and the classes were easy. The graduating class before mine had 44 valedictorians. Mine had slightly fewer — around 30, out of 450.
Maybe this seems absurd. But the valedictorians, and their peers, benefited in almost every way. They might have learned fewer academic facts than prep-school kids, but their Advanced Placement test scores were not lower, and their college admissions records were excellent. Most importantly, they were happier. They had more time to make friends, pursue interests, and discover themselves—and they knew that was the true value of high school.
My job as a tutor is to bring my students’ lives as close to this ideal as possible. To that end, I try to defuse anxiety brought about by high-stakes testing and onerous homework loads, reverse self-doubt inflicted by oblivious teachers, channel parents’ good intentions into supportive roles, help my students understand the context behind these phenomena and deal with them to their advantage. Education should empower kids; education that makes great kids insecure is a bad education. Students at hard high schools rarely have the opportunity to reflect on the system’s insanity, much less articulate it or act on it. Their parents and teachers can and should, but seldom do.
And that is how a “good” school that hurts everyone becomes the norm. Hard high schools stress kids out, tax their physical and mental health, and limit their self-discovery. They promise a better life but fail to deliver, because the adult world that creates these conditions is more of the same.
The only party to benefit is the tutoring industry, which exists primarily due to this suffering, and too often worsens it. As adults — tutors, parents, teachers, and administrators — we’ve failed our kids under the guise of success. And when adults fail, it is always kids who suffer first and most.
Fortunately, Garfield High proves the fix can be both simple and unilateral: make “good” high schools easier, and everyone will have a better education.